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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Composerly Memes

laskdjfals;fjals;dfjsalfkj I have been SO LAZY lately, I scarcely blogged a blog all summer. My big excuse is that I finally wrote my first article for a glossy magazine and I've been stressing over that but really it's a short article and a pretty puny excuse. Also I helped my brother move to Texas! Scroll down the right-hand column to see the bitchin' lamp we got for his new office. But that is also a puny excuse since the whole time I was in the car I was revising that article.

By the way all of my interviewees for that piece were SO GREAT, I can't believe how much amazing material they gave me. It was pretty painful to distill pages of brilliant comments from James "La Cieca" Jorden and Zachary "Z-Wolf" Woolfe into the itty bitty handful of quotes I could actually shoehorn into the article. Which brings me the other thing I've written lately, this pair of reviews for La Cieca, of discs from the James Levine 40th Met anniversary boxsets: Berg's Lulu, Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles. You'll want to click through; some great comments await. A sample:

So provocative! Clicky clicky.

Cieca's comments also got me to thinking again about the ways in which composers are and aren't oppressed by mainstream classical institutions. Apparently Caleb Burhans' string quartet for JACK was actually Boo'd, at Darmstadt? Which is on the one hand distressing (were they booing it on the grounds of style alone? or was the piece actually bad?? neither of those is a very happy possibility!) and on the other hand, forget it, JACK, it's Darmstadt-town. Somebody told me that the Kronos Quartet was boo'd there before they even sat down; after the performance, they shook the dirt off their tevas and never looked back. If that story's true, MORE POWER TO KRONOS. Y'all don't need those bitches. (I mean, can you IMAGINE booing someone BEFORE THEY PLAYED?)

In some respects, what seems like systematic institutional discrimination is really just built in to the institutions—the perennial complaint, for instance, that only "academic" composers are recognized by academia; well, duh!—and there's no way around that tautology except to wait for that battleship, whether it's The University or The Symphony or The Festival Scene, to slowly turn your way. (Okay actually there is one way, and fortunately a lot of people are doing it nowadays, which is to get your friends together and pilot your own sleek little dinghy into those uncharted waters you've got your eye on.) And sometimes you will actually, personally be kept down by composers who find your music ideologically unacceptable, such as in (PDF) this article John Halle wrote about what a jerk Mario Davidovsky was to him. He makes a pretty convincing case!  Mario Davidovsky:  jerk.

A combination of the above factors has produced a surprising number of bitter, bitter boomers and post-boomers. What's great though is that those people's students, having been told that there are no stylistic Wrong Answers, are increasingly setting out in fleets of those metaphorical dinghies. Look at Corey Dargel! I know I keep harping on him, but that's just because he's one of my super duper favoritest composers in the world right now. Or in other words, if he would like a pull-quote for his press materials: Each new song from Corey Dargel only reinforces my sense that he is one of the most compelling and important composers emerging from the New York scene. I'm still kicking myself for having missed the reading from his new opera (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), The Three Christs, this past Monday, and someone should probably kick ME for having totally failed to review his new record yet despite its having come out like last year or something. (I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL REVIEW IT, I'VE JUST BEEN… BUSY.)

But one interesting thing about his success is how few of the conventional trappings have surrounded it. Yes, he has written for starry new-music institutions like the American Composers Orchestra and the newer but no less starry International ICE Ensemble, but mostly he's been putting on concerts in nightclubs, by himself or with a handful of friends, and putting out largely D.I.Y. records on independent labels. He basically embodies the notion that you young composers don't need to chase the DMA, the prizes, and the professorship in order to be able to make the music they want to make.

(Lest we romanticize the situation over here, let us also note that for many composers, while "making the music they want to make" might be very important, things like "comprehensive dental insurance" might also be very important, and it's pretty nasty to have to trade that stability for the opportunity to make meaningful art.)

And so while I am totally OVER hearing established, middle-aged composers with tenure or glamorous commissions or whatever complain about what victims they are because they got one bad review someplace (I'm not even going to name names here; you can fill in the blank), I do have to cringe whenever I hear America's most Dargelicious composer picking up their old refrain, with tweets like this about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's open commissioning thingie, Project 440:
Because FIRST of all, isn't that kind of a mean thing to say about the composers who made the finals? Actually, now that I look at it, the rhetoric he's using borrows a lot from the old modernist bullies—the finalists are "mundane," not "innovative" enough.

On the face of it, this would seem to be the "tautological" complaint. Why isn't Orpheus (most famous for recording, like, Handel's Water Music and the Mozart wind concerti) commissioning more out-there music? Well, they're not a new-music ensemble; they really don't hang out on the cutting edge. But have they really chosen such boring composers? If I could pick four winners out of the final 12, here's who I'd probably go with. This decision is totally subjective and shockingly non-binding:

1. Timothy Andres, composer/pianist, bright young star on Nonesuch Records.
Facile comparison: John Adams.
I'll admit I've never been shocked by Andres's music, but it seems like a good fit for Orpheus, and frankly, it's incredibly well put-together. Listen to this stuff, both of these pieces are really kinda moving:

2. Tyondai Braxton,
rock star, plays with BATTLES on Warp Records.
Facile comparison: Frank Zappa.
I was never a huge fan of the BATTLES LP, but I have to admit Braxton's style meshes incredibly well with the sound of a chamber orchestra in these clips. Exuberant to the brink of kitsch; maybe even (dare I say!) subversive?

3. Alexandre Lunsqui, Brazilian awesome person.
Facile comparison: Dude, I don't know. Somebody from Europe?
Okay now HERE are some unfamiliar orchestral effects. This is crazy! What's even going on here! This is very exciting! Alexandre Lunsqui should be famous!

4. Andrew Norman, Modestonian pianist/composer.
Facile comparison: STOP IT, LEAVE ME ALONE, I DON'T KNOW
I am IN THE TANK for Norman, having admired his music immensely since I was a young 'un (btw I'm sorry this list is All Male and includes not one but Two pianists from Yale), and he's such an intensely self-critical and publicity-shy composer that it causes me a spasm of physical pain to hear someone gripe that he isn't enough of an "innovator" to deserve his little bit of success, but all the same, I hope you'll agree that it's not just me, that his music is quite well-wrought, lively, and satisfying to the ear:


I mean, right?? These are all good composers! Everyone one the list whom I DIDN'T name is a really good composer! They would all write something awesome for Orpheus! Let's just relax, everybody. Young composers, I want to see a little bit less of this
and a whole lot more of this:
Right?

Discuss.

4 comments:

ecmother said...

Amen! I just can't believe that success is a limited commodity in the world. Even if you don't agree, there's no utility in thinking that other folks getting success means you'll get less.

And oh, "repression" (oppression?) and "haters gonna hate"? Faaaaantastic.

David said...

Dan, why don't you start blogging about Katy Perry and Elmo's duet yanked off of Sesame Street?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHROHJlU_Ng

Anonymous said...

can you list the names of the tracks posted here?
and tanks.

Dan Johnson said...

Anonymous: Good thinking! I'll do that in just a bit.